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Navy Brass Shocks With Recommendation to Reinstate Captain Crozier

It will be interesting to see whether public opinion or protocol made for this unprecedented move in the COVID hero's favor.

Capt. Brett Crozier addresses the crew of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) during a change of command ceremony in November 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sean Lynch/Released)

After an investigation, high level Navy investigators are recommending that Capt. Brett Crozier be reinstated as Commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an unprecedented move that is sure to get a rousing endorsement both from his sailors and the civilian community who felt he acted selflessly to get his men and women out harms’ way of the pandemic.

This suggests that a) the charges against him, specifically, that he went out of the chain of command in an email pleading for help, weren’t as cut and dry as the public story conveyed, or b) his superiors are cognizant of the political optics of firing a man who put his neck on the line during a public health crisis that was directly affecting the readiness and welfare of the fleet.

Maybe it was a little of both. There is no denying that this video of his enthusiastic send-off three weeks ago by his own sailors had an affect on public opinion. That Crozier has since tested positive for COVID-19 and has watched as 856 members of the crew (out of  nearly 5000 sailors) have too, with one dead so far, must have played a role as well. 

After Crozier was escorted from the ship, acting Secretary Thomas Modly made comments to the crew saying Crozier’s email pleading for help was either “too naive or too stupid.” His choice of words caused such an uproar among the TR sailors and their families, who by that time had viewed Crozier as their hero, Modly felt pressured to tender his resignation. It was clear where the political winds were blowing, even then.

There have also been stories about Crozier’s superior on the ship, Adm. Stuart Baker, that the men had an ongoing difference of opinion over whether the majority of the crew should be evacuated when the first infections began on the ship in early March. The chief complaint against Crozier’s four-page letter to Navy brass, stating the urgency for the evacuation, is that it should have went to Baker directly, and not in an “unsecured” transmission to 20-30 recipients including seven Navy captains and Baker.  

We may not know the exact details of the investigation. We do know that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has held up any decision on Crozier’s reinstatement, another move that has raised eyebrows. This too, appears to be out of the “chain of command.” Is it not the Navy’s purview—not civilian masters—who decide who or who doesn’t captain their ships? The drama is largely taking place behind the scenes, but what is clear, is that when it comes down to it, the American people hate the politics, and are siding with the guy they think took it on the chin for his crew. Whether that is “correct” in terms of the rules and regs doesn’t exactly matter in this particular court of public opinion.

UPDATE 4/26: I just had an interesting conversation with a retired admiral about the recent events. He too was surprised that the Pentagon now seems to be taking over the decision to reinstate Crozier. While the buck certainly stops with the civilian chiefs, these personnel decisions “normally” take place within the Navy hierarchy. But nothing about this case is normal, my admiral friend tells me, and it has become too political for the Pentagon to ignore. The game is still on, and the civilian entrance into this signals that they might not be comfortable with deciding the fate of Crozier based on public opinion over protocol, after all.

This also raises the question of where President Trump stands on all of this. After all, he did tell reporters shortly after the captain was fired, “I agree with their decision [to relieve Crozier] 100 percent.” It wasn’t too long ago that he stepped in on another major Navy decision—granting clemency to disgraced Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher earlier this year. Is he behind Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley staying the recommendation against the Navy’s wishes?

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